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Reviewed by:
  • War in Social Thought: Hobbes to the Present by Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knobl
  • Christopher Coker (bio)
Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knobl, War in Social Thought: Hobbes to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 336 pp.

Let us start with three observations, the most moving by a writer who fell victim to war, Simone Weil: “Death is the most precious thing which has been given to man. That is why the supreme impiety is to make bad of use of it.” Has anything more profound been said about war—its waste, or its glory? The reality of both has been conveyed for centuries through philosophy and literature. A book, wrote Kafka, any book “must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” But those seas have intimidated most social theorists from diving very deep. It was Freud who wrote that frightening and threatening experiences are the ones that the conscious mind is likely to shut out, though without robbing them of their potency—an explanation, perhaps, for the failings of even the most renowned social theorists (not excluding Marx and Weber) to come to terms with the phenomenon of war.

Joas and Knobl are sociologists, and they are commendably honest in taking their own discipline to task for this failure. They have also in this book produced a substantial work of contemporary social theory that ranges widely—from Hobbes and Rousseau to present-day social thought—and that in focusing on European writers offers a welcome antidote to the strategic community’s Anglo-American bias. War still has its votaries and probably always will have. Whether this generalization extends to the new players—the criminal cartels, jihadists, pirates, and militias of the world—is a moot point. Is war itself like the Borg Collective, appropriating every social phenomenon in its path? And is our two authors’ patent unwillingness to face this question (which they themselves pose) another case of suppressing war within the social sciences? [End Page 500]

Christopher Coker

Christopher Coker is professor of International Relations at and chair of the Department of the London School of Economics. His books include Barbarous Philosophers: Reflections on the Nature of War from Heraclitus to Heisenberg; The Future of War: The Re-enchantment of War in the Twenty-First Century; Waging War without Warriors; Humane Warfare; Warrior Ethos; War and Ethics in the Twenty-First Century; and War in an Age of Risk.



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